Top Five Neuroscience-Based Things You Can Do to Make Virtual Learning More Better*

laptop-1238649*NOTE: The title was my attempt to bring some lightness to the topic, but has apparently got some folks thinking it is a typo. No, I really did mean “more better,” and if I’m the only one who thinks that’s funny, so be it! It wouldn’t be the first time….. 🙂  

 

There’s actually little here that just deals with only virtual challenges—as we’ve learned through our research at BEabove Leadership, much of it is simply best practice in all teaching and learning. But in the distance learning world, we believe we probably need to lean into these things even more because of the challenges imposed by the structure of being separate from each other. It isn’t really how we are meant to learn. For thousands of years, we’ve learned by watching and practicing, by hearing stories from the elders while huddled around a campfire, by being with and near each other. But right now, we can’t always be together in person, so the question is, how to make it as good as we possibly can?

#1. Create Real Connection. In other words, give everyone a voice in some way that is more than “Who has a question?” This may be the most obvious, but it is also the most critical. Why? There are probably two key reasons:

  • Having people make their own connections rather than just listening in promotes their neuroplasticity—they have to make the neural connections in their own brains. And if they know they are going to be asked to participate, reflect, and respond, their brains stay more alert.
  • As social animals, we need to feel connected and safe in a learning environment.

Here are a few examples (of course, use the chat function for these if there are a ton of people and/or you need to manage time tightly):

  • Use a provocative check-in question as you start the session.
  • Have them rephrase what you just said in their own words.
  • Ask, “Who will be ‘Devil’s Advocate’ about what I just said?”
  • Ask for specific examples from their own lives.
  • Ask who can think of a joke that relates to what we’ve been talking about? Or just ask for a good joke.
  • Create one-to-one engagement time with an individual who has a classic example or challenge.
  • Use “breakout” rooms where people can discuss in smaller groups or pairs.
  • As much as you can, read replies out loud to really bring their voices in. If a very large number of people, have an assistant monitor the responses and pull out a few to highlight.
  • Have some sort of fun GIF or sound or visual when someone makes a really great point or provides the perfect segue to the next topic.

applorange#2. Make the Learning Multi-Sensory. The more neural pathways we have associated with something, the more interesting and memorable it becomes. Even simply using slides will bring in visual associations – and making these compelling, visually interesting and unusual will lock in learning more than providing the visual version of whole bunch o’ lists. (The brilliant scientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett uses a GIF of electric towers jumping rope to illustrate one of her points and it is unforgettable.) But more than just nice pics, we can involve all the senses, even in the virtual space.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

  • Ask them to stand and embody what you are talking about; and/or create a simple exercise involving moving their body in some way.
  • Give them homework to bring to the next class something for each of the five senses which represents what they just learned. In other words, what is a visual image that captures this idea? What is the smell of it? What is the sound of it? What does it feel like? What does it taste like? And/or ask this in class. Believe me, it will really get those neurons firing! They can either show on video or tell in chat.
  • The brain is trained to pay more attention to what it hasn’t seen before, so use odd or unusual pictures, videos or GIFs.
  • Tell illustrative stories with sensory detail. When you are lecturing or trying to make a point, the more senses you bring in, the more people will put themselves in the picture, their brains mapping your story along with you.

#3. Provide Both Structure and Freedom. Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain is more keyed to the known, the predictable, and the orderly, while the right prefers the new, the open, and the unstructured. In all training, it’s important to think about both—in virtual learning, the right hemisphere often gets a bit neglected as we strive to provide all the necessary information. The truth is, learning is much more impactful when the instructor pays attention to both.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

STRUCTURE

  • Be very clear about what you’ll do and when.
  • Let participants know how long certain activities or discussions will be, and be reliable (also about class starting and ending times).
  • DO provide clear and simple written (or on slides) data/lists/instructions when important.

FREEDOM

  • As mentioned above, look to provide the unexpected and unusual. The joke or cartoon no one has heard before, the visual image, the video, etc.
  • Dance with the energy of the group, don’t be afraid to go down a few “rabbit trails” that might be slightly off topic if there is energy and enthusiasm there.
  • Do things that make you more human and relatable. Wear something unusual andimg_1963 interesting. Invite your (well-behaved) animals to join you (my cats often come on at the beginning of my classes and then get bored and go away).
  • Co-create – leave room in the curriculum for the participants to shape things—this could be topics they want you to cover, or it could be organizing “teach-backs” from individuals or groups.

#4. Be Stimulating But Not Stressful. Our prefrontal cortex is highly attuned to stress. Keeping things interesting and novel and will be stimulating to this part of the brain (which we definitely need for learning). Overwhelming students with too much information, information that is beyond the scope of where they are, or mind-twisting assignments can overload this part of the brain. On the other hand, a droning voice, slides that are nothing but data and lists, and a pure lecture style with little interaction will have the participants seriously under-stimulated and most likely checked out.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

TO MANAGE STRESS

  • Calibrate, calibrate, calibrate. Make sure you have a very good sense of where your students are and what is the next place to take them. Many amazing experts sometimes forget that what is obvious to them is NOT to the average person. Assuming significant prior knowledge that is not actually there can create stress, anxiety and even shame. This is another reason to keep your slides simple and clear.
  • Be sensitive and allow a great deal of choice when doing emotional work. If a student is processing trauma, they can be more impacted by what might be for someone else completely innocuous.
  • Provide clear expectations but also look for ways to give students some capacity to exert control over their experience. In other words, be up front about what is negotiable and what isn’t. Giving people a sense of control is one of the key ways to manage stress.

TO CREATE MORE STIMULATION

  • As mentioned above, look to provide the unexpected and unusual. The joke or odd-one-out-1353549-1600x1200cartoon no one has seen before, the unexpected direction. One of the key issues with virtual learning as a participant is that our brains can go into a bit of a groove, thinking we know what to expect (or even planning to catch up on email while we attend a class). When the instructor doesn’t go into the same old groove, the brain says “Oh, wait a minute, what’s this?” and pays much more attention.
  • Be variable and melodic with your voice. Instructors with flat voices that have little “prosody” (that is, they don’t go up and down in tonal range) create less connection with their students and generally don’t provide enough stimulation to the brain. If you’re not sure about yours, have a trusted friend listen and give you feedback. Then practice!
  • Express your own enthusiasm and excitement for the topic. One of my favorite teachers is Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. He lectures about biology and it is inevitably riveting. He illustrates many of the points I have mentioned here, but probably the one thing he does that surpasses them all is that he is madly in love with what he does. That energy and enthusiasm is like adding a big bright highlighter pen to whatever he is talking about. (He also tells stories extremely well, with tons of sensory details.)

#5. Create Personal Relevance. Ok, maybe I lied when I said #1 (create real connection) was the most important because it’s possible that this one actually is. The truth is, our brains have to process so much information we have to have some way of sorting out what gets through and what doesn’t. (This is largely the job of the reticular activating system, BTW.) The bottom line is that most of us tend to pay attention and retain information to the degree to which it is personally relevant to us. This aspect of learning surpasses all others, including learning styles and everything else I have covered in this article. If you really want or need to know something, you’ll read the poorly written instructions-1423097-1599x2132pamphlet that came with your vacuum cleaner. If you don’t (because your brain has tagged it as “not relevant”), tap dancing elephants may not even help. This is an issue in any sort of training, but the distance in distance learning can serve to exacerbate the challenge, which is why I believe it is even more critical to pay attention to in that space.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

  • Have students connect the learning to something real in their own lives. I have noticed that even when I think it is obvious, sometimes their brain doesn’t make the connection until you ask for it. Again, you can do this through having people type in examples on the chat and pulling some out, having one or two share a story, and/or put them into break rooms to discuss and then come back and share.
  • Simply keep asking “And how is this relevant in your work, life, relationship, etc.” This will also prime them that you are going to ask that question so they may even listen for more relevance.
  • Ask “When would this be important to know/understand?”
  • Use images and examples that reflect a broad community and especially the community you are teaching. One way to NOT make things personally relevant is to use images and examples that don’t reflect people’s reality, ethnicity, etc.
  • Tell real, authentic, raw and vulnerable stories from your own life. Because at some point the human experience has a lot of overlap. Your struggles and pain—if not sugar-coated and told with deep authenticity—may be close enough to someone else’s to activate their connection to personal relevance. But be aware of the point above. If it’s a so called “first world problem” your story may backfire.

Wishing you powerful learning and connection, no matter how you interact with your people. And if you want to dive deeper into this topic, see our recorded webinar on Creating Brain-Friendly training for much more more on how to make any training engaging, exciting and impactful.

What Are You Predicting?

tarot-1191485-1919x1685In which I attempt to describe the complex process of the prediction cycle in the brain, and why the traditional language of emotional response is failing me….. 

Like most of us, as part of both my personal and leadership path of development, I learned early on that we humans need to work on our tendency to react. That many things trigger us into “amygdala hijacks” and activate our lower, emotion-driven mammalian or even reptilian brains. And to be honest, I found this useful information. It’s good to know when I may have been taken over by an unreliable part of my brain, not clearly thinking, and simply acting in a manner dictated by a fight-flight-freeze reaction to something I perceive as a threat.

Except sorry, it’s not really how it works. First of all, we don’t have a so-called “triune brain” that evolved like a layer cake with each new (better) processor stacked on top of the ones that came before. (See my post The Orchestra of Your Brain for a more detailed exploration of this widely-believed fallacy.) In terms of our conversation here, that means that we don’t actually have an older, reactive brain that literally takes over during times of stress.

Rather, we have a highly complex, ever-evolving system. In fact, these days the way I like to describe the brain is as a system of systems, many of which actually involve the entire brain in some way. And most of which are far more complex than we even now have any idea. For example, researcher Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge has identified at least nine areas of the brain involved in the process of empathy. No one area can be said to be the location of empathy–rather, aspects of the system work together to bring us greater or lesser empathy. And, like every system, aspects can be missing, underdeveloped, or not activated under certain circumstances. (For more on this, see his fascinating book The Science of Evil.) At BEabove Leadership, we ourselves have identified at least nine areas of the brain and body involved in intuition–again, it is a system!

But I digress. The systems regulate processes, and the key process we’re going to explore here is what the brilliant researcher Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett calls the Prediction Cycle. (For a deep deep dive, see her book How Emotions are Made.) Here’s the thing that blew my mind–Dr. Barrett makes a very convincing argument that our emotions are not as we have probably been told:

  • Reactions;
  • Classic, true across all cultures (and identifiable to emotionally intelligent people through the eyes); and
  • A result of our “emotional” brain getting triggered.

Rather they are unique, individual, contextual, predictive constructions based on our personal history, language culture, and more.

Wait, what?

Emotions are not a reaction to what just happened. They are a prediction of what we think will happen (based on our context–which includes culture, language, and past experience) so that we’re ready for it when and if it does. This prediction can (and often does) happen so fast that it feels like a reaction. It’s just not.

You see, the prime directive of our brain is to keep us alive. And it has a limited “body budget” it uses to do so. So for our brain, emotional prediction is kind of like planning your bills–what am I going to need, what can I juggle around so that I am not overdrawn? And if there is a big-ticket expenditure, man, we better be ready for it. So we anticipate, the event happens, it lines up with our calculations (or doesn’t), and we readjust. For example, I recently had to take my car in for its 10,000 mile service and had budgeted a couple of hundred dollars because, since it was a new car, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out the car company covers the first 30,000 and my cost was zero (yay!). Now for the 20,000 mile service I won’t budget for it and can plan to use that money elsewhere.

Prediction Cycle

So how does this apply to emotions? In order to understand that, here’s a diagram of how the Prediction Process works in terms of the emotional systems in your brain. We predict, and that prediction has us simulate feelings associated with the prediction and interpret those feelings using emotion concepts (the richness of the emotion concepts will vary depending on language and our own ability to be “granular” with our feelings). Then what we are anticipating happens, and we compare what happened to our prediction. If it was right on, we go forward with more evidence for the accuracy of our predictions, if not we have to resolve any errors. Let me give you a concrete example to illustrate.

1) Predict: Your brain automatically predicts what will happen based on past experiences, and your current goal. This is a very complex process involving various parts of the brain and body, not just what we have been told are the “emotional areas” (therefore the whole brain and body can be thought of as emotional).

I have to talk to my boss about a raise (goal) and (based on a lot of past experience) I know she will be difficult and unreasonable.

2) Simulate: This prediction leads to an internal simulation before anything actually happens. We’re getting our body budget ready for what we think we will need.

I simulate sensations of unease, heart beating faster, and butterflies in my stomach. (I am getting prepared for what I am expecting and the energy I might need.) I interpret these feelings as my emotion concepts of anxiety and dread.

3) Compare: The simulation is compared to what actually occurs.

I meet with her and she tells me she is working on her overly abrupt management style with a coach, listens to me more thoughtfully than usual, is reasonable, and we negotiate a fair raise.

4) Resolve Errors: If simulation is in alignment with what happened, simulation is validated and will be used for further predictions. If it is not, the brain has to resolve the errors.

4) Error message! I internally resolve the dichotomy and use it for further prediction. In this case, I realize that she actually has become somewhat easier to deal with lately and perhaps I have been mis-predicting. I predict more positive outcomes in the future, simulate differently, etc. 

Key points (and this probably isn’t all of them!):

  • Prediction can happen well in advance of something–like a performance review three months away–or so quickly it doesn’t even feel like a prediction (like getting cut off in traffic);
  • The Prediction Process is neutral in nature, as are all components within it. You could just as easily predict your boss is going to reasonable based on past experience, simulate a calm nervous system, interpret that as confidence, and have her be awful. Then you have to figure out how to resolve that error;
  • Coaching can occur (and by the way, already does) at any point of the cycle. As my friend master coach Rick Tamlyn likes to say “It’s All Made Up!” Asking a client what they are making up about a situation is a way of asking what they are predicting. Asking how they feel about something is a way of asking what they are simulating and interpreting. Asking “what happened and is it what you expected?” is a way of opening the conversation for comparison. Asking “what do you make of that?” is helping them to resolve any errors. In other words, if you’re a coach, you’re already doing aspects of this cycle.

So why does this matter? I think the thing that struck me the most as a coach, is that if it is about prediction, there is a place for intervention. I can poke into whether or not my client’s prediction is fair and reasonable, and if there is current evidence for this prediction. And many times there is not–they are predicting based on old stories and saboteurs. We can look to see what competing evidence and context they have a prediction that is more life-affirming.

If my client is simply “triggered” or “reacting,” it’s too late and the best they can hope for is to do better next time. But an understanding of this prediction cycle and the fact that we are predicting can lead to more personal responsibility — our whole brains are constructing our emotional experience, we have not been taken over by some lower, animalistic part that needs to be controlled, suppressed or punished.

And so I have been stymied by language at times. Everyone knows what I mean when I say “sorry, I reacted,” or “oops, I got triggered.” But when you look someone in the eye and say “I seem to be having a negative prediction” they tend to think you’re a bit odd. (Wait, maybe I need a new prediction around that!)

Consciousness and the Integrated Brain (and Human System)

I was sitting in a corporate meeting recently, and as one of the participants was speaking, suddenly I could see and understand the soul pouring into her. It wasn’t like a movie – I didn’t see light beams streaming — it was more like a knowing. As I watched while she spoke, I knew on a deep intuitive (and yet very real) level that her soul was flowing into her body in an ongoing process.

And this soul was pure energy. By pure I mean both “nothing but energy,” as well as pure in the sense of clean, clear, and uncontaminated. It was her body that could only hold a certain level of vibration. In other words. the energy coming in was shaped in the world by what her human body was capable of.

In that moment I was shown that this was about established patterns and capacities of the mind as well as biochemistry, heart rate variability, the strength of the vagus nerve, and to some degree the general health of the body as well. All of these things were taking the pure light of consciousness and altering the vibration so that this particular body (and when I say body I include the physical brain) could hold it.

I watched this with every person in that meeting. I watched the energy come in and I watched it being held by their bodies in different ways. One person was sick, and I saw her body struggling more, but I could tell this was temporary, a way vibration was working with her weakened body.

It’s like pouring pure, clean water into a cup. Consciousness is pure and perfect. The cup, the body, distorts it depending what residue it holds. The cleaner the cup, the more it can hold and reflect that water’s pure crystalline structure.

acupuncture-body-1564417 (1)

This is how the body works with consciousness. And it tells me it’s not our role to do anything about consciousness. Instead, our role is to help the body hold more light. To clean the cup so it can reflect more accurately what is there.

This involves every single aspect of the human system. For example (but not limited to):

All of this (and more) allows the human to hold a higher frequency. The being can shine more light. And this is why our whole human system is critical to consciousness. We are vessels for light, and those vessels reflect light to the degree they are able.

 

Entering Softly

arms-wide-open-1457804The Right Hemisphere and Coaching

Ah, the two hemispheres of the brain, something we are endlessly fascinated with here at Your Coaching Brain. While it is true that, on a day to day basis, we use both hemispheres for most of what we do (yes, even music, math, art and logic), it is equally true that each hemisphere pays attention to the world in a very different way. The right focuses on the big picture, the relationship between things, and meaning. The left gives us the ability to understand and attend to pieces and parts. It is concerned with both the details and process.

The right hemisphere is also attuned to that which is novel, unique and heretofore unexplored, and as such, all new information comes to us through our right hemisphere. Conversely, the left deals with what it already knows, the representations (re-presentations) of things already noticed and brought into awareness by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s role is as an interpreter of reality, not an experiencer. They each have their uses—and their limitations.

One limitation we need to think about has huge implications for coaching. In order for the client to shift to somewhere truly new, to have an experience of transformation, we must get them into their right hemisphere. All learning starts here—with what we don’t know, haven’t noticed, and are yet to experience. However, we also want to be sure the session is practical and useful for the client, and is, of course, what they want, all of which are more left hemisphere concerns.

And thus a conundrum. On the one hand, traditionally as the session begins we ask the client what they want from today’s work and how they will know they have gotten that. We may ask them to think about the measures and markers that they have, indeed, had a useful session, thus activating their practical left hemisphere and asking it to sort through what it already knows.

On the other hand, current understanding of the brain shows us that often what needs to occur is in the realm of what the client “doesn’t know what they don’t know.” The right hemisphere is where we will find that amazing “aha” that can turn the coaching in a whole new—often much more powerful—direction. This is the part of brain that pays attention to the “still small voice” of what is unknown and undiscovered.

And so, I have come to enter coaching sessions softly. I do ask, what do you want to focus on today, but I generally refrain from getting too “granular” with specific outcomes,* because (usually) I intentionally want to activate the open, learning part of the client’s brain. I want them to enter into today’s coaching from a place they do not know, instead of moving around the pieces and parts they have looked at before. Once we have looked and explored in a wide, open way, there is a time to narrow things down, make plans and look to measures. This focusing in is also an important part of coaching–it’s just not always the best place to begin.

Perhaps it feels a bit more in control if you have a clear, specific, measurable goal for every coaching session, which makes the left hemisphere happy (and yes, as noted in my footnote, there are times when this makes sense). The right hemisphere, however, doesn’t care that things be linear, predictable and measurable, because its focus is a greater integration of the whole. And ultimately, I would argue, this is what really matters in coaching.

*a notable exception is if the client has already, perhaps in other sessions, done enough exploration and they really at this point just need to make a plan.

 

Thank you to Iain McGilchrist for his amazing book The Master and His Emissary, and the new documentary, The Divided Brain. McGilchrist spent over 20 years synthesizing wisdom from philosophy, history, art and neuroscience to help us understand the real difference – and challenge – of the two hemispheres of the brain.

What to Do With the I Don’t Know

shutterstock_1072714010In one of my coaching classes we started the weekend by exploring the “thing we can’t be with.” In terms of coaching, I have to say, it’s probably that client who just keeps saying “I don’t know,”  or otherwise goes flat or blank, even with the best, most provocative powerful question. Argh!! What the heck I am I supposed to do with THAT? I’m not the magic reveal your life purpose fairy, nor am I the sherpa who will carry you up the hill.

But I am the curious brain examiner, so maybe it will help if we go there. Let’s start by looking at a few reasons why a client might get stuck in the I don’t knows, and what you could try if you think that’s what’s happening.

1. They are over-activated in the left hemisphere of their brain. This is often my working hypothesis when the “I don’t know” feels energetically more flat or rigid (the left hemisphere when very over-calibrated takes us to rigidity), and when it is in response to questions like “What do you want?” “What values are important to you?” “What if anything was possible?” etc. And here’s why–those questions are a bit more right hemisphere friendly (for more on the two hemispheres of the brain see Come On Over to The Right Side and Right Brain – Left Brain–Is It All A Myth?), and if the client is currently (or habitually) stuck in their left hemisphere, they simply may not have any access in this moment. 

What to do: You have a couple of options here. One is to ask some questions that are more left-hemisphere friendly, and luckily this actually isn’t hard. The left hemisphere LOVES to judge and evaluate and criticize. So ask the client to do this. Questions like “what are some of the things that don’t work in your current situation?” or even, “what drives you crazy?” can easily be flipped to mine for the client’s values. For example, if the client says “I can’t stand the way my boss micro-manages me, it’s so insulting!” you can probe to see if the value is autonomy, respect, trust, etc. Ok, now we know at least one thing the client may want to shift or change. (Even before I knew about the brain, it was always so interesting to me, and I am sure to most of you as well, how often it was quicker and easier for a client to answer “what don’t you want?” than “what do you want?”)

The second option is to bring them into the right hemisphere, and the best way to do this is NOT through verbal language (which may actually keep them more stuck in the left). Instead, use images, metaphors, and connection to the body as your doorway in. It may help to say to a reluctant client something along the lines of: “In order to help you discover more of who you are and what you really want, we need to activate a part of your brain that is less strategic and linear. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to strategy and steps for implementation. But first we need to get you connected to something deeper, and this is the best way I know.”

2. They are over-activated in the right hemisphere of the brain. While the left hemisphere over-calibrated becomes rigid, the right becomes chaotic. So if I have a client who is all over the place in their not-knowing, and/or feels like any direction they take will cut off some other wonderful idea or possibility, this is my hypothesis. It can feel a lot like a car starting and stopping or a tornado swirling, and I find it exhausting to coach. The client will start down a path that feels resonant, only to turn and double back again. Ack!

What to do: Again, there are a couple of options. Take them into it, or take them out of it. In the first, I often go with the swirl, first making it even a bit bigger (“Yes! and you could also do this, and this and this!”) and then having the client view what their life is like down the road if they stay in this confusion and continue to keep all their options open. What does life look like? Is that what they really want? 

In the second, I like to lean into the left hemisphere a bit by having the client get very linear about each option. Get it out of their head and onto paper. Bullet point it. Make a spreadsheet or matrix. I actually love to help them with this (and sometimes I really need to if they are massively all over the place). You might say something like “Let’s look at each thing, what it would take and how you would feel about it. And don’t worry, you don’t have to commit right now to any of it. Let’s just get it all out of your head and onto the table where you can really look at it.” And of course, as we as coaches already know, once the client can actually look at all of it, they often start seeing patterns and realizing where the energy is. 

3. They are overwhelmed or underwhelmed by stress. When we have either too much or too little stimulation going on in our lives, it can make it hard to think and focus. (See The Goldilocks of the Brain for more on this.) Our prefrontal cortex is needed for this function, and it likes to be in balance. I like to say stimulated, but not stressed is my happy, most productive place. If you have a client who is very bored, not being well-used in their work or life, or a client who is barely managing to keep all the plates spinning, you may run into the “I don’t knows.” Their brain is simply not in the right biochemical state to know!

What do do: this may be obvious, but the first thing is to help get their lovely brains back to the state where focus and direction and some aspect of clarity is possible. If they are under-stimulated (this can happen when they are re-entering the workforce, too long in the same job, under-utilized at work, disconnected from their purpose and passions, etc.), they simply need to get stimulated. Adding some challenge and stress and interesting pursuits will spike the chemical balance in a positive direction.

And if (as many clients are) they are overwhelmed, over-scheduled and over-worked, take a look at this list for some research-based ideas for diminishing the chemical overload. (And as a bonus, here is a short video of me using this idea as a coaching tool.)

There may, of course, be other brain-related reasons a person gives you the “I don’t knows,” but honestly, mostly what I have encountered as a coach is some combination of the above.  I hope this helps!

Yes-pertise

In my work I end up reading, viewing, and even talking to quite a lot of experts in their field, which is both cool and critical to my own learning and growth. And in this process, letters-1-yes-1188348-1599x1066I’ve started noticing a quality I respond to in the experts I admire the most. I’m calling it yes-pertise, the ability to be both a kick-ass expert on their topic and to bring a sort of humility and wonder to their writing, teaching and sharing.

Dang, I love this, and here’s why: it honors us both. People who have spent a lot of time figuring stuff out, studying, thinking, researching, writing, etc. deserve our respect. Becoming an expert in one’s field isn’t an easy path. It generally requires huge amounts of discipline, creativity, perseverance, and passion. YAY! And of course no one person (or group) knows it all, and the wisest among us understand this as well. Someone with true yes-pertise is a “yes” to the contributions, insights, and ponderings of others, whatever their age, degree or experience. Even a seven-year-old might have a helpful insight or question, even a neophyte in a profession or practice might intuitively grasp something that has eluded a seasoned expert.

What we’ve learned from improv

Yes-pertise is a way of being open to the contributions of others without losing one’s own knowing. It has some roots in the idea from improvisational comedy that anything offered by a fellow actor is met with a “yes, and….” because a “but” or a negation will kill the scene:

Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!

Actor Two: This isn’t a beach, we’re on the subway and there’s a tuba player over there.  

Actor One: No, we’re at the freaking beach and I am going to make a sand castle! (Thunk goes the scene.)

OR

Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!

Actor Two: Yes, and look at that big tuba player over there, I wonder what he’s doing? 

Actor One: Well I brought my piccolo, but I’m worried it might get sandy. (A million places this could go….)

In the case of what I am calling yes-pertise, it has a similar impact–with expertise alone it can be a closed loop for the expert’s own knowledge, but those who share with yes-pertise tend to create open, ever expanding conversation in which everyone learns–and often are inspired.

Why does yes-pertise matter? 

The expertise part of someone with yes-pertise is critical to our being able to trust what they are saying. When someone brings forth their wisdom with confidence and clarity and we get a sense the depth of knowledge they are accessing, we tend to believe they are someone worth listening to and we pay attention.

The yes part of yes-pertise builds an even deeper trust. When someone is able to admit what they don’t know and/or be permeable to others’ contributions, it tells us that they understand they (like every human) have limits and are ultimately more interested in understanding than promotion of their own ego. This tends to create a feeling of being fellow explorers on the journey of knowledge rather than passive consumers of a set of information.

The older academic model was based on hierarchy and domination. Even the language: you have to “defend” your thesis or your point. What do we defend against? Attack. Is my single (or perhaps a team) effort good enough, or is someone else smarter, will they prove me wrong? In this model, the delight comes often comes from refutation of previous work, being at the top of the heap by pushing someone else down. (NOTE: not all academics are like this, many exhibit true yes-pertise, for example, vulnerability research and teacher Brene Brown and Mindsight author Dan Siegel.)

The idea of yes-pertise calls us to seek understanding together. If we are experts, to hold strong in what we know but at the same time be very open to what we don’t and what others might bring. And where we aren’t experts, I think yes-pertise calls us to offer what we see from our own perspective and experience, trusting that life and our very humanness has granted us a place at the table of wisdom.

Honoring Brilliance, Respecting Wisdom

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw some heartfelt thoughts from a friend on her sadness at the division between Millennials and Boomers, and it made me think (as many things do) of the power and magic of integration — this time between the generations.

Honoring Brilliance

Allow me, for a minute, to go to the brain. Our wonderful Prefrontal Cortices, which give us access to empathy, long-term planning and direction, abstract thinking, delaying gratification, and so on, are still developing well into our twenties. (When exactly canteenagers1 vary from person to person, with men maturing more slowly on average. Some say 25 is a safe bet, but it can be anywhere from 21 to 30.) The connections between the emotional centers (the amygdala and limbic system) are gaining in stability, and we have a far greater ability to manage our emotional responses as we enter our mid- to late twenties. Decision-making becomes more rational, empathic, and thoughtful.

But here’s the kicker–this time of development is also one of our most brilliant. The ability to make astonishing connections, come up with new ideas, innovate, and think creatively is high. This is likely because the brain’s grey matter increases during childhood and peaks in early adolescence. Part of what we know as prefrontal cortex development is actually a function of this decrease through a process known as synaptic pruning, where the brain literally gets rid of connections that aren’t used, as well as the laying down of the myelin sheath, which strengthens neural connections so they are stronger and more reliable. In other words, young people’s brains have a ton of potential in terms of ways of thinking, while the more mature adult brain has done its pruning and a great deal of myelination, and has its patterns of thought reinforced over years of use. (See neuroplasticity for more on this subject.)

I’ve seen this in action directly with my own millennial, currently a senior in college and a Philosophy major, like his mom. As we talk about what he is reading and pursuing, I find myself struggling to keep up, and not just because I don’t remember what I read 30 years ago. Even when he explains what he is thinking completely and carefully, there is a quickness of connection lacking in me, one that I know I had at his age. I remember being able to dance at the top of those tall trees, making subtle and astonishing arguments and parsing through a dense paper seeking truth.

Respecting Wisdom 

My brain honestly works differently now. That quick lightness of thought and connection has been replaced with–I think the best word for it is–wisdom. Part of this wisdom is an older woman thinkingincreased aspect of intuition (which we believe is a system of interrelated factors that give us below-conscious-processing insight and knowledge), arising from what we have experienced. At this age, my brain can find patterns between the experiences of 54 years, quickly having a sense of what may be going on. Researchers call this “contextual intuition.” I think of it as a storehouse of micro-memories that the brain accesses below conscious awareness to help us recognize patterns. This aspect of intuition explains why a doctor who has spent 20 years treating tropical diseases may see a new patient and immediately “know” what is ailing them, while a new intern needs to look up all the symptoms.

My brain is also more patient at this age. I find myself willing to wait to see how things play out, to trust that I don’t have to know everything right now, and even that there are many things I will never know. The adolescent brain is on a track to make sense of everything–this is its job, after all. But not all is readily apparent, and wisdom shows us that sometimes patience is the best strategy, knowing what needs to unfold will unfold with time.

Wisdom also has given me a better sense of when I am operating from my emotional center and when I am thinking things through, while the adolescent and young adult brain can be carried away emotionally without realizing it. And I should add that learning NOT to say or write things when I my amygdala has been triggered unfortunately did not happen when I magically turned 25. I am still learning this, but it’s easier and I have more awareness of what is happening than when I was in my teens and early 20s.

Lastly, my brain is more integrated. This is strictly a hypothesis, but from observing my own son, his friends, and others’ children, it seems to me that the prefrontal cortex develops somewhat asymmetrically. In the right hemisphere, we have empathy and human relationship skills, while in the left we have more of the planning and sequencing aspects. My own left hemisphere was on a bit of delay–I didn’t get focus and direction until about age 27, while I had empathy and concern for others from a much younger age. My son was the opposite–he was able to plan and execute from early adolescence, but understanding others begin to develop a bit later. Wisdom–and great leadership–comes with the ability to do both.

Integration

And so, once again, as I said above, I find myself thinking about integration. I am astonished and want to nurture all the brilliance of our world’s young people. After all, these are the brains figuring out how to make biodegradable plastic out of banana peels and clean up the oceans with a giant vacuum cleaner. They deserve our respect. Yay young brains!

AND, I want to give due respect to the wisdom of the older brain. Nothing can replicate true context, patience, emotional regulation and dual-hemisphere processing. It has to be experienced for oneself, and grown over the course of a lifetime.

So why have a war? When the young brains feel honored and the older ones respected, we can partner in leadership and together make an even bigger difference in the world.

For more on this topic, see Dr. Dan Siegel’s book Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain.

 

You Don’t NEED Neuroscience

In which I explain whatever possessed me (an artist and poet) to take myself off to neuroscience school….. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I got my training as a coach almost 17 years ago, I was working as a consultant in the non-profit world. My background was theater, poetry, art, and philosophy and I think I’d perhaps taken one or two science classes in my life. I came into coaching full-on and full-hearted; its power and magic blew me away in my very first class.

I certainly didn’t need neuroscience to prove that coaching is effective. I could see it. The evidence from stories and examples was overwhelming—who needed numbers and graphs? In my coach training, I was completely fine with the instructors saying “trust us, it works,” then trying it myself, failing, refining, and eventually WHOA, a moment of true transformation for my client. WOW. Who cares HOW this works? It DOES!

But when I first became a coach I was married to a lawyer with a science background. He had a tendency in those days to dismiss and diminish coaching as fluffy, ungrounded, woo-woo and self-indulgent. Little did I know at the time what a blessing this would be, adding machinepainful as it was. Again and again, I found myself completely tongue-tied and inarticulate when he would cross-examine me about how coaching works. And falling back on my defense of “trust me, it does!” was not particularly satisfying to either one of us. While I hated being cross-examined, I did long to know what the heck was going on. Why did coaching work so well when people just gave it a shot? How could I explain this magical, amazing world of personal growth and transformation in a more compelling way? Was there a bridge to be built between the trusting mystics and the doubting linear thinkers?

Fast forward a few years. I’m divorced (I could only take so much cross-examination, after all), teaching a model of consciousness with my dear business partner Ursula, and a newly-minted faculty member for the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). Three things happen: one, I am watching our students challenged by the same confidence and communication issues I had as a new coach; two, we were struggling to get people involved in our work on consciousness; and three, I kept seeing little tastes of neuroscience in the news. This was eight years ago, and while it was NOTHING like today, with thousands of articles and books, and a new finding about the brain almost daily, there were some intriguing bread crumbs in terms of both coaching and consciousness.

Do you ever get that question that won’t leave you alone? The one that wakes you up and pokes you? The one you think, “now THAT’S a good question?” Well, proving what we were really up to in the business of human development/transformation, that was my question. How does this all work? Is it simply mystical and unknowable, or are there portions we can know? And so, to the amusement of my family (Neuroscience? I didn’t think you had any interest in science) and the bafflement of my partner Ursula (You go ahead, dear, I will NOT be joining you in neuroscience school!) off I went.

The impact was almost immediate. I was amazed. While at the time there wasn’t any direct neuroscience research on coaching (or consciousness, for that matter, but that’s another blog post), almost everything we studied was correlative, applicable, and ultimately expansive. For example, when we went through the research on how to manage stress, it mapped elegantly with the three core principles I was teaching at CTI. Learning about the right and left hemispheres of the brain helped me understand the different ways we tune our listening: to level two (more left hemisphere) or level three (more right hemisphere). And so much more. After every class I’d call Ursula and say “Guess what I learned?!” and we’d debrief and look to see how we could take this learning to a new level. And six years ago this May, our flagship program, Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching, was born. This stuff was just way too cool not to share!

As we developed and trained this amazing information, Ursula, a prosperity guide, Akashic Records reader, and author of a book on blessings, became a huge neuroscience fan and expert as well. She likes to say “If I can learn this, anyone can!”

And for both of us, it hasn’t killed the mystery at all. It’s created innumerable new mysteries that have us exploring the edges of quantum physics, the heart’s resonant field, hyper-communication, the power of vibration, and much more. We have come to see that consciousness is ultimately about integration of the highly complex system of being human, and coaching is one of the best things we can do to create lasting integration. Therefor, we argue, coaching literally raises consciousness. That’s all. Just that. No big deal.

Recently I saw a post on Facebook from some blogger calling life coaching a fraud, and I was thrust back to the dinner table of 15 years past. remembering spluttering and stammering as I tried to defend a profession I hold very much in my heart. Except this time, I calmly and serenely thought, “Oh, you have NO idea what we are really doing to people’s brains and world. No idea at all.”

For a comprehensive overview of the neuroscience of the ICF competencies, see This is Your Brain on Coaching. For more brain states at different levels of consciousness, see the Seven Levels of Effectiveness ebook.